Fostering connection for those who feel alone

When it was time for Mary Doyle to downsize, she had to leave the Boulder neighborhood she’d called home for 30 years, friends she’d known for decades, stores she’d shopped at.

The move to Longmont left her lonelier than she expected, so back to Boulder she went: Not to live, but to participate in an intergenerational writing course at the University of Colorado. The class pairs college students with older community members (62 and up) to explore a variety of topics; the most recent being a rumination on the American Dream.

The class is designed for two groups who are at risk for social isolation: older people who have lost loved ones or moved from their homes, and college students who sometimes have trouble connecting with other students.

When Doyle met her writing partner, Carleigh Bernard, for the first time, the two women talked for seven hours. Today, they consider themselves good friends.

“This is so much more than a class,” Bernard said. “This relationship has been so powerful for me."

The friendship between Bernard and Doyle is not unusual. Rather, close connections are a common outcome of the class, said Jack Williamson, who created the course.

“I have story after story of wonderful things that have happened” between community members and college students, Williamson said. “We get twice as many applicants as we can accept."

As Boulder County’s population ages, social isolation is a growing concern, said Deb Skovron, an advocate for seniors. In the 2018 survey by the Boulder County Area Agency on Aging, 31% of older adults reported feeling lonely or isolated.

“Just because we put older people in congregate settings, it doesn’t mean people are connecting and really feeling fulfilled socially,” Skovron said. “We make an assumption that people find other people, but that doesn’t necessarily happen."

Skovron is founder of Circle Talk, a program that fosters meaningful conversations among seniors to combat loneliness. The groups focus on thought-provoking and personal questions (Who are you most grateful for in your life? Who would be grateful to you, and for what?) that, like the CU writing course, bring people closer.

“What we’re about is getting people to engage with themselves and with each other in a deeper way,” Skovron said. “Our sole goal is connection."

CU’s intergenerational writing class is one of many efforts the university is making to help students adjust to college. Sixty-four percent of college students reported feeling very lonely in the past year, according to a 2017 survey by the American College Health Association. The scope of the problem at CU isn’t clear; in a campus survey, 84 percent of students reported making friends. Still, the university maintains a webpage directing lonely students to services. And the college has dedicated more resources to mental health, doubling fees dedicated to providing care as demand rose 40% between 2013 and 2018.

“College can be such an isolating place, such an isolating time,” said Bernard, who works with underclassmen to help them stay connected.

Being able to give Bernard advice on dating, relationships and other life experiences helped Doyle transition to living in Longmont. It eased the fear she and other seniors report: being a burden on society.

“I just totally adore this young lady,” Doyle said. “Right now, I feel about 30 years old.”

by Chris Barge